Standard new PC blues
May 13, 2008 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Various quandaries in building a new PC

I am thinking hard about building a new pc to replace my 2003 P4-2.8G-AGP machine. Basically, I'm planning on following the current Ars Technica "hot rod" minus a monitor and minus the sound card & speakers.

The needs here are general-purpose home machine, including gaming, usually low-level statistical work (done before my finger leaves the enter key sort of stuff), and occasional takes-a-weekend serious number crunching.

Also, I maybe wouldn't mind springing for one thing beyond their rig.

So, specific queries:

(1) They go with DDR2 800 RAM instead of the DDR2 1066 that the MB can take. Would spending $50 to get the 1066 make an appreciable difference? I am not planning on overclocking.

(2) Would I see a worth-it performance increase if I got a 10K RPM hard drive for the OS/programs and used a 7200RPM for data, instead of just one 7200RPM drive?

(3) Worth getting an SLI MB? Or will it be more cost-effective to just get a single card with a newer GPU in 2 years?

(4) 65nm quad-core vs 45nm dual-core, in a machine that does general-purpose duty.

(5) Lifespan of the LGA775 socket? We got burned building biscotti's machine w/ a socket-939. Will I be able to easily find replacement cpus in three or four years?

(6) Vista or XP? No, seriously. Both are nigh on free to me, and if I'm going to end up wanting Vista in two years I'd just as soon install it now.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1. Dunno
2. Yes, this will make a perceptible difference.
3. I think so. I'm running 2 cards in SLI and if you have the money for this rig, you'll eventually want to, as well. I think it's more cost effective, as you only toss out a card every other upgrade.
4. I'd go quad-core, especially if you're doing crazy number crunching.
5. Dunno.
6. I'd say Vista is finally ready for prime time. I wouldn't have said that a year ago, but most of the wrinkles are ironed out at this point.
posted by mamessner at 7:40 AM on May 13, 2008

Response by poster: Oops, I should have been clearer:

It's 10K hard drive *or* SLI *or* quad, *or* none of the above. No ands.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:43 AM on May 13, 2008

(1) If the FSB of the CPU you are using is 1066, it'd probably be worth it to upgrade. If not, stay with the 800.

(2) 10K drives are really expensive, and I think the performance increase is not worth it.

(3) If the machine is doing general-purpose duty, you will probably not ever need to use SLI. If you're intending it to be an upgrade path in the future, you'll have to hunt down a second card that matches your first one exactly, which will probably be hard.

(4) I think dual-core is plenty for general-purpose duty. The 45nm process will mean that the computer will run cooler, too.

(5) The LGA775 socket is getting a bit long in the tooth. It's been used since 2004, and has had a great run spanning from the late Pentium 4s through the latest Core 2 processors. If you bought an LGA775 motherboard in 2004 you'd probably be pretty happy. It looks like Intel is preparing two new sockets, Socket B (LGA1366) and Socket H (LGA715) for the second half of this year. I wouldn't let this scare you away, though; I think it just means you shouldn't invest as much in the motherboard portion of this computer.

(6) Who knows. I'd try Vista first, as you probably will be wanting it in two years. If it's horrible, install XP.

On preview, if I had to pick from 10K, SLI, or quad core, I'd go quad.
posted by zsazsa at 7:50 AM on May 13, 2008

1. Some. On dual core, if you're not OCing, there's not as much reason to buy premium memory. If you go quadcore, you probably want the fastest RAM you can get.

2. I like 10k Raptors a lot. If you can wait for the new VelociRaptors (should be just a couple of weeks), they're 300MB and faster than anything else out; this makes level loads and the like faster in gaming. (ie, it's good.) For regular stuff, you won't notice much difference.

If you can't wait for the VelociRaptors, then a standard Samsung or Hitachi 1TB 7200RPM drive will give you about the same performance as the last-gen 10KRPM drives.

3. SLI is only worthwhile if you're trying to drive a very high-res monitor that a single card can't handle. In no other case is it cost effective or worthwhile. Ignore the fact that it even exists.

4. General purpose, there's no reason for quadcore, unless you're a very very heavy multitasker. For gaming, it doesn't hurt, and will get better over time.

5. Don't even think about that. Three or four years from now, there will be some new memory standard, and maybe some new slot standard. Buy what you want today and, unless you're planning on upgrading within 24 months, assume that you'll be replacing motherboard/RAM/CPU all at once if you ever upgrade.

Also note that almost none of the boards that shipped at the same time as Socket 939 would take a modern CPU anyway; "LGA775" is backwards but not forwards compatible. That is, you can still plug a Pentium D into a current motherboard, but the Core duos and Quads won't go into old motherboards. You would, in other words, have been just as screwed if you'd gone Intel with the last machine.

6. If they're both almost free, buy XP32 and Vista 64 now. Use XP now. If/when you need more RAM than XP can support, upgrade to Vista 64. Don't switch until you must, and you may get better options at some later time.

Extra suggestion: don't buy NVidia chipsets. They have lingering bugs and problems, and NVidia never ever ever fixes any of them. Stick with an Intel chipset. If you can find a board with actual Intel networking, I think those are better than the more common Marvell ethernet chips, and of course they're extremely well-supported in everything.

On preview: if you can choose only one of quad/SLI/10KRPM, go with premium memory and quadcore.
posted by Malor at 7:50 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

1- It should be faster, but you may not notice. I know that in earlier machines, the smaller the ratio between the processor speed and the memory speed, the faster the machine seems. It used to make a difference, I haven't built a machine in a while to see if it still does. Hit the web for benchmarking graphs and see what the difference is these days.

2- Worth it? I'm not sure if you'd notice, but they are faster all other things being equal. If you get a cheap 10K versus a good 7200, you might even see a performance hit. Check out the specifications on the Seagate/WDC site and see if there is a huge difference in the specs.

3- I don't know. I've heard that SLI is overkill for all but the most ridiculous (200fps @ 5000x2000 resolution, etc.) setups. On the other hand, getting a board that's capable of it insulates you against the future.

4- I don't know. More cores makes a difference in some applications, but not as much as you'd think overall. Again, check the benchmarks for better info. The 45nm should use less power and thus cost less to run.

5- This is always a crapshoot. There really is no predicting when they will change sockets. As long as you do due diligence to make sure they aren't changing next week (as I sadly didn't do with my last machine), you've done all you can.

6- I'm not a Vista hater. But then again, I haven't used Vista. I would guess that it's fine on a new machine. I'm sure where a lot of the complaints come from are people doing bad upgrades or trying to use it on an older machine. In theory, Vista should be better since it renders the desktop and effects on the graphics card.

My best advice for these questions is to always check some forums for the software that you're going to be using and see what those people say in regards to the various performance options. But really, except for the most unique circumstances, anything should be fine. All of this is really "on the margin" performance issues.

And as always, gaming is usually the most intense use of a computer normal people do. When I sold computers, I found that people very often said things like, "I don't need anything fast, it's not like I'm running a business on it. I just want to play games." Which is the exact opposite of reality.
posted by gjc at 7:57 AM on May 13, 2008

1. "Appreciable" is hard to quantify but remember that apart from disks, memory is the slowest part of the computer.

2. More spindles is pretty much always better. How you allocate them is your business.

3. SLI is generally a "more money than brains" thing. It's a shade faster than a single card under most circumstances, but it comes at the cost of buying two video cards at a time. On the other hand there's no harm in having a board that can do it and then holding off on a second card until you're feeling a performance pinch. Personally I'd spend this money on a second display instead of a second GPU.

4. If you don't have any software that's heavily multithreaded, you're not going to see a substantial benefit for the money spent on a quad core box. If your number crunching is a CPU-bound load for a parallelizable problem domain, that'd be a decent reason to go with more cores.

5. Yeah, I got cornered on the 939 platform and wound up just springing for an FX-32. The LGA775 is getting a bit long in the tooth and the last I heard Intel's was looking at angling for a new socket come mid-2009.

6. Given the rock and hard place choices you've set out, XP is the lesser evil. I haven't yet seen a trouble-free Vista installation although I'd assume it's out there working properly for someone, somewhere.
posted by majick at 7:59 AM on May 13, 2008

Two more thoughts: it sounds like you're somewhat price-sensitive, so if there's much of a premium for Intel networking, don't bother. It's not like the Marvells are terrible. I just like to buy my desktop boards with the idea that someday I may make them into a server, because I keep doing that. :)

Second: if your data crunching is on very large datasets, more than 2gb, you might get more performance from a faster hard drive than from quadcore. You'd benefit even more by running it from RAM in a 64-bit OS, if you can get a 64-bit version of your crunching app. That would be a compelling reason to go with Vista64 now.

In any case, avoid Vista32, because you get all the incompatibilities without any of the expansion capability. If you're staying at 4gb or under, you'll probably still be happiest with XP, especially for gaming.
posted by Malor at 8:02 AM on May 13, 2008

Stick with XP as long as humanly possible.
posted by nthdegx at 8:06 AM on May 13, 2008

"It's 10K hard drive *or* SLI *or* quad, *or* none of the above. No ands."

If your budget is that tight on this build, none of the above. And buy a small gift for someone special to you or give the fifty bucks to charity. None of the set {10K, SLI, 4core} is a single feature worth throwing your fifty bucks at unless you're planning to bling out the rest of the box.
posted by majick at 8:17 AM on May 13, 2008

2) Yes, it will make level loads faster. But it's cheaper and faster to RAID-stripe two 7200 RPM drives.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:32 AM on May 13, 2008

Skip XP and Vista, go with Windows Server 2008.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:30 AM on May 13, 2008

I've not had a lick of problems with Vista (once I took it to Lifehacker school and got it to quit bugging me about every. little. thing.) except to say there are, for some reason, some fairly fundamental problems with the nVidia display drivers that mean that when I plug in my second monitor, the whole thing BSODs. Pain in the arse.
posted by Jofus at 9:38 AM on May 13, 2008

2) Yes, it will make level loads faster. But it's cheaper and faster to RAID-stripe two 7200 RPM drives.

2) Most modern SATA drives can match the 10K Raptors in terms of throughput. However, random access latency is much, much lower with the Raptors. You're not going to get that with a RAID0.

I think it makes an appreciable difference. My 2 year old dual core Athlon still feels snappy due in large part to keeping the OS and games on a Raptor.

3) SLI is silly, IMHO (as someone who has SLIed 7900s).
posted by kableh at 10:32 AM on May 13, 2008

I just want to chime in and second majick that none of those premium options you're looking at are really worth the extra investment. If you don't have one already I'd put that extra money towards a nice case like a Lian-Li or Coolermaster which is the only piece of computer equipment that will likely last you past 3 upgrades.
posted by woolylambkin at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2008

Read the system plans and comments on Tech Report. They have many of the same recommendations as Ars Technica plus a good discussion of what fits with what.

1. Unless you overclock, faster RAM has no effect.

2. For your splurge, think about an SAS hard drive (see Ars Technica's God Box) to hold just the operating system. (Note that there's no on-mobo SAS support yet, so you'll also need a separate controller.) This will make everything load faster and speed up everything that needs disk access. For storage, 1Tb drives are so cheap you can get two in a RAID0 or RAID1 setup.

3. SLI combines two graphics boards to act as one. You need it only for the most demanding games with a giant monitor operating at maximum resolution.

4. 65nm CPUs are on the way out, and 45nm is smaller, uses less power, emits less heat and has shorter inter-transistor connections. There are relatively few applications that use even two cores, and almost none that use four. Go with the 45nm dual core.

5. Everything in your 2003 P4 system is obsolete. Just so, anything you buy today will be obsolete when the time comes to replace it. Get what works now and don't worry about tomorrow.

6. Vista now. Win XP has "more mature drivers," but again, that matters only for extreme gaming.
posted by KRS at 11:53 AM on May 13, 2008

the 10k hard drive is almost never worth the cost for the kinds of stuff you're doing, and certainly not if it means skimping on something else to afford it.

10k hard drives exist for certain high bandwidth data writing tasks, including servers and video editing machines, and for these tasks they're damn near a necessity, but for anything else they're a luxury much like a thousand dollar beer. it's just there so you can say you've got one. The kind of number crunching you're thinking of doing that might take a weekend won't be bottlenecking at the drive, so it won't help you there, and the rest of your tasks won't notice the difference at all. MAYBE certain OS functions will run faster, but the amount of time saved will be approximately 10 seconds of your life.

on the other hand, I highly recommend getting a smaller, faster 7200 rpm drive for your OS separate from a data drive either way. The benefits of that are long term rather than short term, but you will one day say to yourself, "man if only I could just take this junk off the machine before I..."

Vista is a neat OS, and I run it, but it makes my games run like crap. YMMV.
posted by shmegegge at 12:24 PM on May 13, 2008

4) Is your occasional number crunching parallelizable? If so, paying $220 for the quad-core Q6600 might be worth it. If it's not, then the $200 dual-core E8400 will give you better performance and a lower electricity bill. Going for the E8400 instead of the E8200 Ars recommends is definitely worth the extra $15.
posted by PueExMachina at 7:45 PM on May 13, 2008

Response by poster: Is your occasional number crunching parallelizable?

Not unless I buy the multiprocessor version of Stata, which I won't anytime soon. The important thing for that wouldn't be speeding it up --taking a weekend or 12 hours to run isn't really any different to me-- but just to have other cores to use while it's churning on multilevel multinomial logit models.

I think in the here and now I won't bother with any of the various splurges, and will keep an eye on the prices of 3GHz+ quad-cores so that eventually I can run models, transcode 1080p mkvs for the PS3, and play Spore 2 all at once.

Thanks all!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:36 PM on May 13, 2008

Used SCSI controllers and used 36GB/74GB 15K RPM SCSI drives are cheap, and much faster than raptors. Also interesting, but I haven't gotten around to experimenting yet.. CF cards can get very large nowadays, and adapters to plug those straight into IDE sockets are about $5 on ebay. And yes, I think drive speed is pretty important. The 15k drive on my workstation completely kills the drive in my laptop, but the systems have comparable hardware in other respects. I notice the difference every time I open a rarely used menu on the laptop.
posted by Chuckles at 7:21 PM on May 14, 2008

3.) techreport says: "Two 9600 GTs can be faster than a single GeForce 8800 Ultra, despite the fact that they cost substantially less. Similarly, two Radeon HD 3850s are a better deal than a single Radeon HD 3870 X2, if your motherboard can accommodate them."

I dunno - it might be worth investigating an SLI setup, if for a given dollar value it nets the best performance?
posted by unmake at 9:06 PM on May 14, 2008

Also: one other thing you might want to consider before buying all your kit is whether or not you're going to aim for a silent machine.
posted by unmake at 9:12 PM on May 14, 2008

« Older What questions do you have about crowdsourcing?   |   Wordpress/PHP/Dreamhost web hosting question Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.